Act: Inspiration

Seed and the Commons

April 19, 2018

Global seed reserves are under serious threat. The recent ‘Baysanto’ merger is just another indication of the systematic consolidation of the seed market in the hands of a few select multi-national corporations. At present, over 75% of the global seed trade is controlled by just ten companies. This is not news and the Sustainable Food Trust has reported at length on the state of the world’s seeds and the innovative projects and movements which have emerged in response to this.

One such organisation is OpenSourceSeeds (OSS). By equipping plant breeders and propagators with a free, open-source licence for the seeds they breed, they provide the necessary legal protection to prevent the patenting of the seed by other parties. This is about protecting seeds from privatisation and consequent market consolidation, and reframing seed as a common good.

Comprised of activists, agronomists, lawyers and plant breeders, OSS has origins in the Association for AgriCulture and Ecology (Agrecol), a German NGO which supports organic and sustainable agriculture and rural development in the Global South. In the US, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) works to similar ends, aiming to bring seeds back into common ownership by creating a pledge for breeders – this is, however, not legally binding like the OSS seed license, but the two organisations work closely together on this issue.

With a commitment to agroecology, OSS advocates for diversified agriculture and farming strategies which manage to meet the needs of a growing global population whilst protecting the Earth’s natural resources. Despite the fact that we know of over 50,000 edible plant species, currently 90% of human calorific intake across the globe is supplied by just 15 crop varieties.

For many thousands of years, farmers have cultivated and enhanced crops, ensuring they are particularly well-adapted to the soil and climate where they are grown, to produce the highest yields. This led to a richly diverse, geographically-specific range of crops under cultivation.

We need to return to this practice, growing varietals that are well adapted to local environmental conditions. In the last century or more, we have vastly narrowed the genetic diversity of the crops we grow, losing 94% of our vegetable seed varieties. Instead of focussing on just a few crop types, we need a greater variety of crops in our fields. Only then will we be able to grow food without substantial agrochemical inputs. It is also a resilient approach: in light of anthropogenic climate change and the serious challenges facing global agriculture and food security, we need crops which are able to adapt to these changing conditions.

When seed is in the hands of many different farmers and breeders across the world, we can ensure the breeding and cultivation of a range of crop varieties. A farmer will grow those varieties best suited to her land. For that, OSS argues, we need an alternative to the private seed sector.

“The open-source strategy is radical,” says Johannes Kotschi from OSS, ”There is no alternative,if the continuous and almost unilateral flow of plant genetic material from the commons [sic] to the private seed sector is to be reduced, and a commons-based seed sector is to be established.” The approach is simple. A breeder creates a particular plant variety and applies for an OSS license. This license is a civil contract by German law and means the licensee may “use the seeds for his or her purposes, to multiply it, to pass it on and to enhance it. In addition, it allows the dissemination of enhanced seeds.“ These rights are also passed on to anyone who possesses the seeds in future and includes any seed enhancements made. The seed cannot be restricted by intellectual property rights, such as patenting, at any stage. It must remain in common ownership. “Once a commons, always a commons,” Kotschi says.

Currently, three tomato and three wheat varieties have been licensed, with further varieties in the pipeline. One struggle OSS has faced is convincing plant breeders to adopt the license. The expected clientele are primarily organic plant breeders. They fall into three categories, Kotschi tells me, “some breeders are enthusiastic and ready to license; others are not yet convinced and believe ‘open-access’ is sufficient; and there is a third group which believes in protecting plant varietals and refuses the license,” arguing that they need the returns from royalties.

“We are in a pilot phase with some trial and error,” Kotschi explains. “In a couple of years, we will know better. At present the young (and ‘wild’) breeders are interested in the license. But, it will probably take four to five years until the more established organic breeders and seed companies join.”

Kotschi has high hopes for the future, “I certainly expect it to succeed.” The OSS has many goals for the coming years. First, they want to expand and spread the open-source seed concept and create a network of people with similar concerns across Europe. They are also considering how the license may be adopted in developing countries and linked to participatory plant breeding strategies, where plant breeding emerges from collaborations between farmers, breeders, policymakers, development organisations and consumers.

The OSS initiative has been received enthusiastically. Back in 2016, only a few months after the license was launched, the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations, Apimondia, used it to create their own open-source license for bees. There are various other exciting projects in the food and farming sector which have adopted similar open-source strategies, such as FarmHack, a digital depository for blueprints of farm tools allowing farmers to share resources and skills.

These are powerful and exciting ways to bring the future of global food and farming back into the hands of those individuals who actually produce it. As a global population, we are already facing, and will continue to face, fundamental threats to the way we produce food. Climate change, coupled with exploitative, ruthless industrial agricultural practices, are turning vast swathes of previously rich and fertile soils into barren lands. Rural communities suffer first, but global food security is soon after. We need a vast range of crops, adapted to suit these changing climes, and a vast range of individuals breeding and growing them. This begins with seed. By bringing seed back into common ownership, as OSS does, we begin to untangle our global dependency on the few firms who control seed. When seed is in the hands of growers, and knowledge is shared, our chances for an ecologically and socially just future for agriculture, looks a lot more promising.

Helene Schulze

Helene graduated from the University of Oxford with a Masters degree in Environmental Governance in 2017. She is a freelance writer concerned with the intersection of food, agriculture and social justice with a concentration on seed conservation. She lives in London, United Kingdom.

Tags: open source, rebuilding resilient food and farming systems, Seed biodiversity